"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, June 11, 2012

Evaluate This! Shows the way forward for authentic education reform

"I am heading for a four-year college. The classes that most helped me prepare for this were NOT test prep classes. They were the ones where I got to explore stuff and do projects." — Tiffany Tuggle (CEJ Member and Senior at UCLA Community School)

Jessica Kochick teaches at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in the Westlake District of Los Angeles near my home. Jess and I come out of the same political tradition, and over the years we've worked together on several struggles fighting the racist, classist, neoliberal policies of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). A year or two ago, Jess was discussing standardized testing and Value Added Measures (VAM) — or Average Growth Over Time (AGT) in LAUSD parlance — with several of us and suggested an event demonstrating how the vast majority of real pedagogy can't be measured on standardized tests or quantified in any similar fashion.

Her vision eventually led to Evaluate This!, an education fair showcasing projects at various schools sites throughout LAUSD. With an emphasis on project based learning, the fair featured some absolutely amazing forms of pedagogy. Even though I arrived to catch the very end of the event, it exceeded expectations in every possible way. Even the virulently anti-public education Los Angeles Times ran a blog [1] piece entitled L.A. students and teachers display learning beyond tests.

Evaluate This! was sponsored by Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) North Area, UTLA Raza Education Committee, and Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ). The same groups also arranged for Professor Linda Darling-Hammond to speak to educators about authentic teacher evaluations at the Historic Coconut Grove Auditorium in the Robert F. Kennedy School Complex a week later.

A notable display included Grand View Boulevard Elementary School's Dual Language Immersion program. A bystander informed me that they heard it had been in place for 21 years. Thinking immersion programs had only been around for about a decade, I wrote my good friend and fellow neighborhood activist Cheryl Ortega, who is also Director of Bilingual Education at UTLA. She confirmed the program has been around that long, and pointed out that it has flourished in an affluent neighborhood, but our task is to convince inner city schools to adopt these programs. Cheryl and I have discussed many times in the past how it is often difficult to convince immigrant parents to enroll their children in dual language immersion programs given the racist nature of U.S. society that both discourages impoverished peoples from retaining their own cultural identities, combined with the pressures on schools from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to force English proficiency on students.

Cheryl had the following to add in terms of her experience from the education fair:

The entire event was wonderful. I loved the mix of elementary, middle and high school exhibits. I was particularly impressed by the project on violence against women done by 3 high school boys. Well done!

There were amazing robotics experiments from Dahlia Heights ES, a garden snail project from MacArthur Park Primary Center, and even books published by classes of students at various schools. One that caught my eye was Sheep can't fly by students of Garfield High School, with a forward by Father Greg Boyle, S.J.. Several years ago the Garfield community successfully fought off LAUSD privatizer Yolie Flores' attempt to give their school away to the Green Dot Charter Corporation run by capricious corporate CEO Marco Petruzzi.

My neighborhood was well represented with a biology project from Logan Street Elementary School headed up by the widely regarded Julie Van Winkle. Many of the CEJ Student Activists that had made the Social Justice Schools Conference so dynamic were also in attendance, and many of them had displays at the fair.

I was able to get two of the participants to submit brief write ups of their projects. The second of the write ups is in relation to a poignant display from an amazing educator who through the sheer budget mismanagement of LAUSD, like many of our newer teachers, receives a reduction in force (RIF) letter on an anual basis. To add insult to injury, many of these RIFs could be averted if the district wasn't squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on discredited and disproven Value Added Measures (VAM).

Esperanza Elementary School first grade garden project at Evaluate This!

Esperanza Elementary School first grade garden project at Evaluate This!

Our garden exhibit at Evaluate This! On 5/18/12 at Miguel Contreras Learning Center.

Our display at Evaluate This! documented with photos, student writing, drawings, graphs, crafts and realia how students in four first-grade classes at Esperanza Elementary School have embarked on a quest to learn to grow healthy food in an urban asphalt environment. Students began by planting lettuce, radishes and tomatoes in containers and a small raised bed in a concrete courtyard. They've cared for the plants, documented their growth in writing, graphs and illustrations, started over with new plants when some died, captured green caterpillars who came to dine on the plants and later watched them turn into butterflies, released ladybugs to eat aphids that threatened their plants, and enjoyed eating the lettuce and radishes they grew. (The tomatoes aren't ready yet!) Students have read and discussed books about plants, learned about the needs of all living things, and all have written booklets about their gardening adventures. Some conducted experiments to see if varying the amount of water affects plant growth, and graphed their results. Many have adopted healthier eating habits, snacking at school on carrots, apples, bananas, tangerines and sugar peas still in the pods. Students now want to try growing a wider variety of vegetables, and some have already started growing them in containers in the apartments where they live. School gardening offers a venue for engaging real-life learning about social studies, language arts, math and science that goes far beyond anything measurable on a scantron. Our gardening project is evolving as it proceeds, and we hope to expand it next year to include more classes. The teachers are Angie Low, Alicia Rodriguez, Lynda Ayala and Anne Zerrien-Lee.

How Standardize Tests and Value Added Measures Undermine Learning

How Standardize Tests and Value Added Measures Undermine Learning

My name is Larry Shoham and I teach 8th grade English and 7th grade World History at Westside Global Awareness Magnet.

We are here to challenge the notion that our students are not engaged in meaningful learning experiences. Every day I go to work I am engaged in educational reform. My colleagues and I are constantly reflecting on our practices, trying figure out ways to make our instruction more meaningful and engaging to the students we teach. We know our students and we understand their needs. Innovation isn't achieved through top-down mandates and relentless onslaughts of bubble tests. It's achieved through collaboration, academic freedom, and equitable resources.

Unfortunately, so many rich learning experiences will be lost once we succumb to these new evaluations. There will be incredible pressure on us to teach to the tests and abandon the active, project-based learning that does not directly lead to measurable gains on multiple-choice tests. Instead of speaking, writing, and questioning, our students will be subjected to mindless exercises in an attempt to micromanage testable skills. In fact, it's already happening. Last year, I read two novels with my students. This year, we barely got through one. Why? In an attempt to juke the stats and squeeze our school out of program improvement status, we agreed, as a staff, to commit more time toward test prep--teaching directly to the State's test release questions and reviewing, ad nauseam, the District's periodic assessments. My students were bored out of their minds. I was bored out of my mind. Sadly, this is the game we have been intimidated into playing.

Value-Added Measurement (what LAUSD calls "AGT") is problematic in so many ways. This past fall, LAUSD sent me a confidential AGT report evaluating me as an English teacher. It was a number. It did not tell me anything useful that I could apply in the classroom. The fact that our precious public money is being spent on LAUSD's AGT made me angry. These state tests are meant to assess students on their grade-level mastery of ELA content standards. Having large populations of English Language Learners and students who are far below grade level puts so many of our teachers at an immediate disadvantage. An 8th grade student who is reading at a 5th grade level may improve to a 6th or 7th grade level, but her gains will never be recognized because she is being assessed on her mastery of an 8th grade reading level. This is not right. Yet the LA Times publishes this horrendously flawed data. The public is being fed misinformation about our schools and our teachers.

AGT does nothing to help us improve our instructional practices. We envision something that relates more closely to the NBPTS (National Board of Professional Teaching Standards) certification process. Check out the plan we propose on www.utla.net. Just like the evaluations we give our students, evaluations for our teacher are useless if they are only punitive, if they can't be used as a tool for learning and improvement. I am a National Board Certified teacher. I learned so much by going through the process. We need an evaluation system will provide us with meaningful feedback and promote professional growth among all teachers in our District.

The press release from the organizers listed four framing principles:

  • Standardized tests are discriminatory to students.
  • Evaluating teachers based on standardized tests will harm education and harm students with the greatest needs.
  • Value added measures (VAMs) are inaccurate, unreliable and wasteful.
  • Academic freedom is necessary if teachers are going to be able to engage students in curriculum that will help them reach both their academic and human potential.

In the wake of Pearson's Pineapplegate and the ominous limiting of learning that will inevitably result from Corporate Core Curriculum, there's never been a more critical time to hold these types of events all around the country throughout the year. It's not that students are clamoring for more testing, and many parents are beginning to catch on to the testing industrial complex. It is my strong belief that events like Evaluate This! make it politically untenable for the privatizers to continue to push their agenda of eliminating critical thinking skills from public schools. If it can be answered on a scantron, it probably isn't worth learning!


[1] Naturally they didn't see fit to print anything depicting public education in a positive light in their actual paper.

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